After a decade of friendship and sometimes more than 12,000km between us, my best friends and I have had to find new ways to express how much we adore each other. They don’t need to be lavish gestures; just little interruptions to say “I love you! I have for many years! I probably always will!”.
One of my favourite humans once sent me a card that read “you are the butter on my popcorn,” with a little picture of a cube of butter and a box of popcorn hugging. I popped it on my bedside table so that I could see it each night before I fell asleep, and again when I woke in the morn. Another of my girlfriends sent me a giant teacup filled with fuschia sweetpeas, which apparently symbolize jubilation – an appropriate choice given that the little card attached asked me to be her bridesmaid. Another of my friends got me through a sad day by singing me One Direction songs and feeding me fresh Scottish strawberries.
I make a real point to celebrate my friendships as much as I do my other relationships. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, especially since writing 83,339 words on the topic (a book called The Friendship Cure). We have so many rituals to celebrate other sorts of love: weddings, birthdays, engagement parties, hen’s dos, baby showers, even wakes at funerals. We don’t have any official protocol for celebrating friendship anniversaries, so we simply must do it ourselves!
Friendships are perhaps our most tenuous sort of relationship; we are legally and romantically bound to the people we marry and biologically related to our families. It’s very easy to get consumed by launching a career, starting a family and working out who we are as people. Unfortunately, when we get busy and overwhelmed, one of the first things that we start neglecting is our friendships. It is truly my life mission to remind people to prioritise and nourish and protect and maintain their friendships because it is so often precisely when we start to forget about them, that we actually need them the most.
Just quickly, let me tell you how important friendship is. It’s lovely to have friends, we know that much. They can make us feel like our best selves, like we belong. They can be terrific for things like self-esteem and confidence and comfort and solace and joy. But they’re also fantastically important for our health. Research has shown that friendship can help protect us from all sorts of ailments – things like cancer, stroke, heart attack, dementia, depression, anxiety and insomnia. One big study suggests that having good friends can actually make us live longer. Whereas loneliness can be utterly devastating, making us more susceptible to all those physical and mental health problems (largely because loneliness produces the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies which can do long term damage).
So, what sorts of friendships do we need to have in our lives? And how do we make long lasting friendship work?
We all have different friendship needs, but generally speaking we’re lucky if we can count our most beloved pals on one hand. Oxford University evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar did some research that suggests we should have about 150 friends in our lives, but that includes extended family, close friends and all sorts of acquaintances. Really, we should be focusing on the most important 3 to 15. And of that number, we might like to have some really close mates, a few casual but fun ones, some work friends, our childhood friends, the people we met at uni, the ones we met online and even the ones we’re related to. It doesn’t matter, really, how we make up our social circles; what matters is that we have enough meaningful connections to make us feel emotionally safe and supported and sometimes, yes, please, joyous.
As for how to make those friendships last – well, we can start by acknowledging their preciousness. Tell people what they mean to you. Make a private little promise to tell your friends you love them (in whatever way you like, whether it’s saying those words out loud, in emojis, by preparing them their favourite meal, or with flowers). Swear that you won’t neglect or forget your friends, especially when things get stressful (like, I don’t know, during a global pandemic?). Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable with your mates, because that’s how we really get close to people. When in doubt, be kind. Operate with compassion and integrity. Dote on your friends, treat them like they’re special, make sure they know you care.
Which brings me to my most important suggestion: celebration. Thanks to Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation (played by Amy Poehler, comedian, actor and human sunshine), we do have Galentine’s Day every February 13th – a day to eat waffles and proclaim love for our girlfriends. International Friendship Day is the 30th July. But other than that, we don’t have any regular festivities in the calendar specifically for friendship. So let’s make them!
Here are some ideas… Work out what date you met your best friend and celebrate your friendship anniversary every year with a special meal, a love letter, a bottle of wine or a bunch of flowers left on their doorstep (or all of the above). Make a pilgrimage back to the place you met. Choose a day that falls between your birthdays and have a two-person party. Leave each other long, rambling voice memos on WhatsApp. Make them a card, knit them a scarf, send them a batch of muffins. Book a group holiday to a Greek island and put the world to rights over a plate of fried cheese (I have done this – 10/10, would do again). Pick a day of the week or month that you put aside diligently to spend time together (currently, I go round to my friend Sam’s house every Friday morning, with pastries, to cuddle her and sing to her new-born son).
Do whatever you like, just find a way to celebrate the love between you and your mates.
Don’t wait until Facebook presents you with one of those little slideshows telling you how long you’ve been friends with someone; do it yourself. Get nostalgic, explain what you love about someone, write cards, share food, bake, sing, cuddle, drink, dance, send flowers that mean something, do a class together, watch Jennifer Lopez movies, text at all hours, pick up the phone, have so many cups of coffee, walk somewhere beautiful together, get your favourite take-away, put heart-eye emojis underneath every single selfie, have a sleepover party, invent a cocktail, do a photo shoot, start a Sunday roast tradition, do Zoom quizzes, send Lindt. Do it your way – just do it.